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Celebration of Mozart in Salzburg and Vienna

Christian Kerber The House for Mozart, a new theater, will open this summer at the Salzburg Festival

Photo: Christian Kerber

The impression one has is of a Mozart at the center of a social whirl, in a city that was full of opportunities for him, even if it was also full of frustrations; a man with a natural aptitude for court life, but also a strong sense of his own merits—a figure from the dawn of the modern era, when the ideals of the Enlightenment were fighting it out with absolutism. Herbert Lachmayer, the founder and director of the Da Ponte Institute (named for Mozart's most celebrated librettist), has curated an anniversary-year exhibition on the subject at the Albertina museum. "Mozart/The Enlightenment: An Experiment" (on view through September 20) explores how the Rococo and the Enlightenment were intimately connected and part of the same world. On his computer, Lachmayer shows me a series of images, including a desk owned by the 18th-century French architect Claude-Nicholas Ledoux, who could sit down at a writing table that was all frivolity and curves to produce his celebrated visionary geometric designs. Next, he shows me a dress by Christian Lacroix and a Montgolfier balloon: the dress, he says, evokes the exuberance of the past; the balloon reminds us that Mozart lived in the experimental age of balloon travel. We walk to a nearby building to look at the designs for a Franz West carpet, with which Lachmayer is going to cover the gallery floors of the Albertina, the site of the exhibition. The motif on the carpet resembles an ear; Lachmayer is pleased.

Perhaps the most emblematic enterprise will be New Crowned Hope, the centerpiece of Vienna's international festival, which arrives in the fall. Created by Peter Sellars and named after the Masonic Lodge of which Mozart was a member, its ambitious focus is on new music, theater, dance, film, visual arts, and architecture; it will be produced at venues throughout the city. American composers John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov will premiere an opera and a large-scale choral piece, respectively. Choreographer Mark Morris will present dances set to Mozart piano concertos and other keyboard works, in collaboration with British painter Howard Hodgkin, who is designing the backdrops. Sellars will direct Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's opera about the French philosopher Simone Weil. La passion de Simone marks their third collaboration. Behind the involvement of impressive personalities in the Mozart celebrations is a hope that the events will have an impact beyond the State Opera, the Musikverein—home of the Vienna Philharmonic—and other traditional concert halls, which are all within a mile of one another.

The Theater an der Wien, the city's newest opera venue, is another outcome of the anniversary year. Built in 1801 by Mozart's collaborator on The Magic Flute, the actor and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, it is horseshoe-shaped and intimately proportioned, accommodating an audience of only 1,000. The theater is presenting a series of new stagings of Mozart operas, including The Magic Flute this month, as well as some coproductions with other European theaters, mounted by leading directors. Concerts of contemporary classical music, ballet, and premieres, including the intriguingly titled Odio Mozart (I Hate Mozart), are also on the schedule.

It is well known that early on Mozart was impatient to escape Salzburg, his native town. Like his father, he was in the service of a prince-archbishop of the Holy Roman Empire, and although the musical culture of the prelate's court was elaborate, no operas were produced there. For Mozart—who as a teenager had written stage works for Milan and Munich—opera, the most complex of music genres, provided the greatest scope for financial as well as artistic reward.

Today, Salzburg can lay claim to one of the world's most distinguished and well-established operatic festivals. The Salzburger Festspiele began in 1920 and from the start was associated with distinguished names: Richard Strauss, the composer; Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the dramatist and librettist; Max Reinhardt, the producer and director. In the first year, Jedermann, Hofmannsthal's version of the 15th-century English morality play Everyman, was staged on the steps of the cathedral square—where it is still performed to this day. Reinhardt, one of the first modern stage directors, whose productions in Europe spurred major revivals of classical drama and Shakespeare, had an influence on the festival that has endured as long as Jedermann.

By 1926, the colonnades of the Felsenreitschule—Salzburg's open-air riding school, cut into the living rock of the great natural ridge that overhangs the city—had been adopted as permanent sets for experimental productions; not long after, the extensive old stable buildings that had belonged to the archbishop of Salzburg were taken over, to become the Festspielhaus.

The architect responsible for creating these venues was the modernist Clemens Holzmeister. As the festival increased in international fame, providing a showcase for Austrian culture and Mozart in particular, the various parts of the current theatrical complex were added on. But after the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, Holzmeister, a devout Catholic, was forced into exile and spent much of World War II in Turkey, where he stayed until 1954.

On his return to Austria, Holzmeister rebuilt the complex, digging back 46 feet into the cliff and, from 1956 to 1960, creating an enormous stage, the Grosses Festspielhaus, to accommodate productions from the open-air Felsenreitschule when they were rained out. The auditorium, with its wide proscenium, was intended for large stagings; a Kleines Festspielhaus was also created, for smaller productions.

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